SPIA alum becomes Olympic researcher after graduation

By: Rachael Andrews

Sarah Hughes (BA, ‘14) studied international affairs at UGA and had her sights set on graduate school for international security when an opportunity of a lifetime led her down a different path. During her senior year, amidst a fellowship with the Center for International Trade Security (CITS) in SPIA, Hughes was offered the opportunity to be an intern for NBC Olympic’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. At the time, Hughes did not have a particular interest in a media career, but that soon changed.

With every 15-hour workday (for 42 days in a row, no less) Hughes worked as a “runner,” or an assistant for on-air talent, she fell in love with the adrenaline of live TV. 

“There’s this feeling at the Olympics that you’re at the center of the world,” Hughes says. “The whole world has descended on this one place, so the stakes are high. It was an incredible experience.”

After she returned from Sochi, Hughes had to choose between continuing to graduate school to or to try something new in media. 

“Ultimately, I decided that I could always go back to school, but I couldn’t always use the connections that I formed a month prior,” Hughes explains. 

Hughes chose the media path and spent a year on the road for NBC as a runner. Since Sochi, her goal was to become an Olympic researcher; intuitively, it was a research and writing-heavy job, which Hughes saw as an opportunity to further hone the skills she gained from her studies in SPIA and CITS. 

During her time as an assistant, Hughes kept an eye out for any opportunity that might lead her to become a researcher. Finally, she got the chance to work on the bottom-line ticker that scrolls along the bottom of the screen during news coverage. After that, Hughes was able to work as the figure skating researcher at NBC Olympics on a freelance basis, which allowed her to spend two summers in Los Angeles, one working for Paramount Pictures. 

In her time as a researcher, Hughes had to learn about figure skating with no background on the sport, but her hard work and studying paid off when her role expanded into a full Olympic researcher, where she now researches other sports, including figure skating and gymnastics. 

Even in a non-Olympic year, Hughes is always preparing for the next Olympics. She spends her time fact-checking and editing press releases and research pieces for Olympic programming, as well as interviewing athletes about their performance in competitions and qualifiers. 

The research team at NBC also prepares manuals for each sport that includes the history of that sport and current events, as well as general knowledge manuals for the Olympic games and where they are based in that year. Hughes produces a portion of these manuals so that others can refer to them for accurate, trustworthy information.

“It is very important to be certain that everything you research is accurate and true,” Hughes says. “[You have to] care about detail and accuracy; [my] strength as a writer has been instrumental in my success because the most important part of my job is the writing,” she says.

“Being able to explain complicated concepts in simple terms is [also] important,” Hughes continues. “The most important thing that we as [Olympic] researchers do is telling athlete’s stories.”

As for UGA students who may be seeking some advice for future professional endeavors, Hughes emphasizes, “Care about your writing in college, care about the edits your professors give you on our papers.”

“Good writing can open a lot of doors for you,” Hughes continues. “Try to become the best writer you can while you have to write a lot for college. You are surrounded by professors that can help you.”

Hughes recommends that current UGA students take advantage of the resources they have while in school because those resources will not be immediately available forever. “In a job, people will tell you that something you write isn’t good, but won’t tell you why,” she says. 

“Generally, people expect you to already have that skill developed. There are no teachers in your job to teach you how to write.”